Andros Townsend prevented a repeat of their World Cup loss to Italy, with a fine late equalizer to salvage a draw from Tuesday’s friendly in Turin. Townsend, who seems to save his best for the international stage, struck and unstoppable shot past Gianluigi Buffon with his weaker right foot to draw England level at the Juventus Stadium with just 11 minutes remaining. And it was arguably warranted after an improved second-half display from the hosts. Earlier there had been no question that Italy were well worth a 29th minute lead given to them by Graziano Pellè. The Southampton striker has gone 13 matches without a goal in the Premier League, yet he had not problem exposing some woeful English defending to head in Giorgio Chiellini’s cross past Joe Hart.
Since both teams exited the World Cup following Italy’s 2-1 win In Manaus, it had been England that had rebounded the better. Roy Hodgson’s side made it five wins out of five in their qualifying group with a 4-0 victory over Lithuania on Wembley last Friday. Yet they struggled to cope with the six changes made to the side after a spate of withdrawals.
After a dream scoring debut, Harry Kane’s first England start came alongside the disappointing Theo Walcott and ahead of Wayne Rooney in a diamond midfield system. It was the selection of Phil Jones at the base of that diamond that raised most eyebrows and left England struggling for a platform to build upon in the opening half. Only when he dropped back to his more familiar defensive role, following the introduction of Michael Carrick in place of the injured Chris Smalling, did England get going and mount growing pressure to Buffon’s goal.
Italy, meanwhile, had made a far from smooth start to Antonio Conte’s post-World Cup reign, requiring a late equalizer against Bulgaria at the weekend. Yet despite also making seven changes and lining up with a internationally inexperienced midfield, the hosts were the more assured until the predictable second-half substitutions disrupted their progress more than their opponents.
It was Italy, though, that began firmly in control. The result at the World Cup had owed much to England’s failure to deal with the forward charges of full-back Matteo Darmian. While this time playing as a left wing-back, he was again the main source of England’s difficulties early on. It was the Torino man’s layoff that saw Marco Parolo fire a dipping effort from distance that Hart had to be alert to in order to turn over the bar.
Parolo was starting in a midfield three that was missing the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele de Rossi and Marco Verratti and had just 10 appearances between it, including debutante Mirko Valdifiori. Yet Italy continued to boss the opening stages. Another Darmian run ended with Phil Jagielka clearing from under his own crossbar, before Italy got their reward through an unlikely creator. Chiellini is not exactly known for his nimble footwork, yet, in what was a major indictment of the England man, he had enough skill and speed to beat Jones down the left before delivering a cross that left the England defense flat-footed and Pellè to find the corner of the net with a smart header.
Smalling’s injury, Carrick’s introduction and Jones’ reassignment always looked likely to be an in unintentioned aid to England’s chances of getting something from the game, and so it proved. While Rooney had bounced a volley against the crossbar before Italy had taken the lead, the system was not working. Jones’ failings were clear, but it was also telling that before the interval, Rooney and Walcott had been switched, though the Arsenal man, starting his first international for 18 months, fared no better behind the forwards.
It was with Ross Barkley’s introduction in place of Walcott and a general increasing of the tempo that England were able to build some momentum. Rooney twice more went close to moving within just a single goal of his country’s all-time scoring record, but saw Buffon deny a firm shot before touching Kane’s cross wide of the far post. As for Kane, the Premier League’s top scorer had a quiet night, though he did trouble the Italian goal when his low effort deflected just wide of the target.
It took something out of the blue to get England level. Townsend came from nowhere to make his mark on the international scene with a stunning strike against Montenegro to help secure England’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, and in truth has done little of note since. But he showed he retains the ability to fire lethal shots from distance, this time beating one of the world’s best keepers with his weaker foot from 20 yards. Both sides had chances to go in front late on in a wide open finale, but a draw was perhaps a fitting conclusion.